Reeva and Oscar: a mythological perspective from Jung

Reeva and Oscar: a mythological perspective from Jung

1786_482012531868203_1487733729_nThis post is an application of Jungian theory to offer an alternative way of understanding the tragic event of Reeva Steenkamp’s death at the hands of Oscar Pistorius. It is a continuation of the post A bullet in the chamber: a Jungian perspective on a murderous gun complex

Reeva painted these pictures when she was 14, they’ve been in the house for a long time now, but we never really realized what they were about. here is a man standing in a field, next to a tree, and he is holding a gun. and then on the other side… is what could be reeva wearing angel wings, and here is the ladder going up to heaven. and we never really, really understood the painting but it almost seems like a premonition. and it is, if you look at it, it’s a premonition of what happened to her. and she’s petrified. she’s afraid. she’s showing horror and she’s afraid. she’s terrified. her hands are over her mouth, and she’s terrified. if you look at it now it’s clear as anything that this is a premonition”.[1]

These pictures and the interpretation from Reeva’s mom, June Steenkamp, are interesting from the perspective of Applied Jungian Studies. The pictures show a dark figure, a man, holding what could be a gun. June Steenkamp interprets it as being a gun, one doesn’t know whether or not this interpretation was given by Reeva at the time of the drawing to June, or if possibly viewed close up the image is clearer. What is clear is that he is holding protruding rifle-like-object in his hands. He is pointing it at the young woman in the picture. The young girl has wings, like an angel, and behind her is a ladder that appears to be going up to heaven.

Does June’s interpretation of this being a premonition seems reasonable? I think it is certainly understandable. Reeva draws this at the age of 14: a strange dark man with a “gun” pointing at a young girl who has angel wings and is about to ascend to heaven! As a (completely meaningless) coincidence one would be obliged to remark that is quite extraordinary.

Jung offers a way of illuminating, if not complete understanding, of what may be going on here. Jung suggests that the unconscious psyche is a non localised phenomenon; it is not constrained by space and time in the same way that consciousness is. Understanding this, Reeva’s art, as a teenager, anticipating an event that was many years off in the conscious and causal timeline and expressing unconscious and non local knowledge, makes sense. There are three concepts from Jung that speak specifically to this issue: childhood dreams, archetypal theory, and synchronicity, which I unpack briefly below.

The other key idea Jung gives us is that our individual life paths are expressions of mythological motifs (myths). And like all myths one is living in the structure of the mythological narrative from conception. Myths do not start at the point of high drama, the denouement, but long before. If we accept this idea then Reeva, like all of us, had an unconscious intimation of the myth of her life. In the case of Reeva and Oscar this mythological dimension is quite apparent; the story is of course a modern myth.

A beautiful young woman (mythologically the maiden) pure of heart, who grows up in very humble, circumstances, but loved by all, makes her way to the big city to find her fortune, and naturally her prince.  There she meets her prince, a man who epitomises the heroic and the masculine ideal and wins her hand, but behind closed doors, out of the public eye, his heroic public character is complimented by a demonic dimension that threatens to break free and wrest control of the prince. The beautiful maiden is equally attracted to and terrified of her prince who she both loves and fears. Their brief but passionate relationship exists in a state of high tension between their conscious love and darker undercurrents that always threaten to overwhelm them. And of course in this case the demonic, the darkness, triumphs over the light, much more in line with Grimm’s fables or ancient Greek mythology than the Disneyfied modern mythology of children’s movies where it is always light that triumphs over dark.

The three key concepts from Jung that bear on this are:

1. That childhood dreams frequently (maybe even typically) speak of the life path of the person that has yet to unfold.

Although dreams in which these mythological parallels appear are not uncommon, the emergence of the collective unconscious, as I have called this myth-like layer, is an unusual event which only takes place under special conditions. It appears in the dreams dreamt at important junctures in life. The earliest dreams of childhood, if we can still remember them, often contain the most astonishing mythologems; we also find the primordial images in poetry and in art generally.[2]

2. Archetypes and archetypal patterns. The archetype is a transpersonal universal form that exists not only in an individual’s psychology but also in the world. Archetypal patterns are like universal myths that are lived out in individual lives.

“The stars of thine own fate lie in thy breast”

This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious…this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals…[it] constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us. [3]

The archetypes are formal factors responsible for the organisation of unconscious psychic process: they are “patterns of behaviour”.[4]

3. His concept of synchronicity the connection of events through meaning rather than causality. That we frequently encounter events that live in both the inner world and the outer world and share a meaningful acausal connection. This is the idea of premonitions, pre cognitive dreams, discussing or thinking someone and then they call, arrive, or email you etc.

The problem of synchronicity has puzzled me for a long time…when I was investigating the phenomenon of the collective unconscious and kept on coming across connections which I could not explain as chance groupings or “runs”. What I found were “coincidences” which were connected so meaningfully that their “chance” occurrence would have to expressed by an astronomical figure [i.e the figure of improbability was astronomically high].[5]

Connecting these ideas suggests that Reeva at the time of drawing the images (14 years old) was unconsciously aware of the archetypal myth of her life. Her expression of this myth in her drawings is analogous to the content of a dream. It is a well established fact in psychotherapy, and specifically in art therapy, that drawing is a reliable method for accessing unconscious content. And synchronistically the image in the drawing, representing an archetypal or mythological pattern to be lived out in Reeva’s adult life, occurs in the world. Tragically Reeva is shot and ascends to “heaven”.  

Reeva’s flame burnt very brightly, brighter than the vast majority of her peers. And I’m given to wonder if an unconscious knowledge such as would be present if we accept the hypothesis, would not push her to try more, reach further, push harder and extend herself beyond where others would, who did not share her sense of unconscious urgency.

It is obviously challenging to read a meaning out of this type of analysis. I personally find the Jungian analysis persuasive, but clearly those who are unable or unwilling to see connections in the world beyond the causal will struggle with it. Accepting this as a possible hypothesis though what can be said?

“I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and of how you will react to me,”[6]

It seems based on some of the sms’ shared by the prosecution in court that Reeva was afraid of Oscar Pistorius. Now admittedly this is one amongst many, many sms between the two, but still one may reasonably wonder why such an attractive and obviously popular woman like Reeva would stay in a relationship, a very young relationship (they had been together for about three months) with someone who frightened her?

Psychoanalysis offers an answer to this seemingly counterintuitive behaviour, it has a definite purpose. The purpose of trying to come to terms with, to bring into consciousness, unconscious content. So if we allow the hypothesis that unconsciously this content – the dark man, the man with a gun who shoots the girl, was already present in Reeva’s psychology from the time she drew the pictures, then her unconscious attempt to come to terms with this “man” in the world makes sense. It makes sense not in terms of a best practice type of rationale – which it very clearly was not, but psychologically it does make sense.  Unconscious content will seek expression in the world, all the more so when the subject is unable to come to terms with it in her inner world. I realise that this idea may be a little opaque to the non-psychoanalyst. Let me spell it out, what I am suggesting is something along the following lines:

Reeva constellated in her unconscious at the time of the drawings an archetypal (mythological) story or in psychoanalytic terms an archetypal pattern. The archetypal myth was evident in her drawings an image of being shot by a violent dark man and ascending to heaven, and in a sense being beautified in the process[1]. If we accept Jung’s concepts of the archetypes transcending the personal and psychological, actually being a living reality in the world, and the concept of synchronicity, that events can be meaningfully and acausally connected, then we can postulate that Reeva met her inner demon in the person of Oscar Pistorius. To be clear, the suggestion here is not that Oscar Pistorius is necessarily of demonic character, but very clearly he acted out the role of Reeva’s inner demon in the world. 

To conclude if we accept this hypothesis it does not transfer the blame for the incident onto Reeva or displace the responsibility Oscar bears in this shooting. What it does though is shows that at some level of interpretation, admittedly a level which transcends the one the legal system is concerned with, Oscar and Reeva were acting out, were players if you will, in a mythological drama that lived in Reeva’s soul long, long, before it became a lived reality in the world.  

 

 


My thanks to Alexia Athalie Figgins for drawing my attention to these pictures and June Steenkamp’s interpretation of them.

[1] June Steenkamp.

[2] Jung, C. G. The Development of Personality, Collected Works, vol. 17, par. 210

[3] Jung. C. G. The archetypes and the collective unconscious, Collected Works, vol. 9, part 1, par3.

[4] Jung, C. G. The structure and dynamics of the psyche, Collected Works, vol. 8, par. 841

[5] Jung, C. G. The structure and dynamics of the psyche, Collected Works, vol. 8. Par. 843

[7] naturally not in the classical catholic sense but simply in the media and popular culture; whatever fame she realised in life quite clearly this has been eclipsed in death. She has become ”an angel”.

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Comments (21)

  • Mary Ann Beeden Reply

    Interesting indeed. However, lets just surmise for a minute that this picture was drawn by a person who experienced sexual abuse, something they are trying to tell the world, then we would have a different interpretation, wouldn’t we?

    April 5, 2014 at 12:48
    • Stephen Reply

      Indeed we would Mary Ann, but in this particular case the image does map rather remarkably on the future events in the subjects (Reeva’s) life. So my reading here is not one of abuse, but I grant you faced with the images it is not an entirely unreasonable inference. I am also not sure that one could not infer an unconscious sexuality moving tin the background of this entire myth. I have some thoughts on this, but out of respect for the deceased will not air them here.

      April 5, 2014 at 19:30
    • Elizabeth Reply

      I would agree more with this interpretation. I’m not sure how to put this into words….but for me her picture depicts an understanding of a conflict between the masculine (or the un-well, destructive side of masculinity) and the feminine (or some aspects of the feminine) which is so prevalent in our society that even girl children who have not been physically abused, are keenly aware of it – consciously or not. It may be something that played out in her family, whether through a physical or other manifestation. No surprise, coming across it again later in life – entering a relationship which is an attempt to resolve the tension, being physically destroyed by the very same conflict. Not so much a premonition for me, as recognition of what is pervasive. Maybe, in a way, that’s the same.

      April 7, 2014 at 12:08
  • Lee Reply

    Thanks for a scholarly article. Well thought out and a wonderful article to pass on to those most skeptical of any psychological role in what appears to be a brutal event against a beautiful girl, with no real reason other than a man scared of intruders!
    Her picture speaks a thousand words and as the cycles of life seem to unfold toward eventual resolution, one can probably assume that the motives existed on a continuum.

    April 6, 2014 at 15:23
  • Jacqueline du Plessis Reply

    Wow, so interesting. I had not heard about this painting and found your article well thought out. I definitely felt a bit unsettled reading it, but it makes sense.

    April 7, 2014 at 11:23
  • Byron Gaist Reply

    Thank you for this brave article. It is important to be able to discuss ideas freely, with all due respect to the deceased and her family. I wonder if there may be some more mythological amplification of Reeva’s ‘inner demon’? Is this negative animus figure, f.e. the dark side of Achilles, killing Penthisileia? Or is there a more appropriate mythical narrative befitting this story?

    April 7, 2014 at 11:57
    • Stephen Reply

      Byron good question and not easily answered. Yes it is clearly a tale of the dark animus. But my sense is that is has a distinct theriomorphic character. So something along the lines of Beauty and the Beast or Sir Gwain and the Loathly Lady if we invert the gender roles – of course unlike both of those it does not end well, because the bestial form triumphs in this particular myth.

      April 8, 2014 at 15:23
  • Paulette Turcotte Reply

    This is invaluable work! It speaks fathoms. Perhaps if she/we were more aware at a younger age and able to work with events as we experience, the inner motif may be assuaged and met with some kind of consciousness so the outer event, if it appears, would have little or no fascination.
    I would be interested in seeing work done on just what myth and motif are at play in the larger stage, the world. I think if we had more understanding of what is going on, we might be able to work more consciously. At this point in time, I get the feeling we are regressing. At the very least we seem to be intent on polarizing, at least politically. I wonder if that could be a theme for a workshop or online article and interaction…..
    thanks so much
    Paulette

    April 7, 2014 at 22:41
    • Stephen Reply

      many thanks for you kind words Paulette. Yes I believe that is Jung’s take on it – that what we are unable to come to terms with in the inner world is visited to us in the outer world.

      Great question about the myth of our time, I bet there are a few Jungians amongst many others giving that question quite a bit of thought.

      One commentator who I believe has an interesting take on this is Wolgang Giegerich, although you will need to plough through quite a bit to get at the essential ideas.

      April 8, 2014 at 15:28
  • Barbara Reply

    I liked your article but somehow it left me hanging. Later on I had some insights. First there is this unnamed bond between the man and her, it’s tense and transfixing. She is winged and the ladder is black. The image speaks to me more of a decent into a lower realm, where she arrives and is shocked and horrified. Ladders to heaven are light! Like an angel taking an incarnation(red dress) on the garden planet (referencing eden and earth/gaia) which has been taken over by a psychopathic masculine and is now shrouded in a kind of eerie darkness. Sadly she also forgot her connection (the line of lights) to the realm from where she came.

    We I look at these types of psychic structures, I want to find ways of transcending ‘destiny’ as well as understanding some of the unconscious aspects( particularly divine nature) and why someone would manifest Reeva’s kind of situation.

    It’s an important theme and one we actually have to transcend if we consider the enormous amount of violence perpetrated against women and the earth. Making the descent conscious is profound because it actually loosens the intense connection between the angel and the psychopath and at the same time it reconnects a woman to the heavenly realms, from which she has been excluded purposefully and deliberately by the forces that would have patriarchy in place.

    Did you notice the astrological resonance? – at 14 she would have been in her Saturn half and at 29 completing her Saturn return. It’s so sad, she never made it through to her astrological adulthood.

    April 8, 2014 at 15:02
    • Stephen Reply

      many thanks for your thoughts Barbara, they add some valuable texturing to my rather bare analysis. I particularly liked your take on the lights. and as I mentioned in my response to Paulette yes certainly one would like to believe (and I think Jung did) that once can transform one’s “fate” into one’s “destiny” and I interpret this as movement from the shadow into the light of any archetypal narrative.

      April 8, 2014 at 15:31
  • Barbara Reply

    Interestingly when I was contemplating I didn’t remember the line of light in the picture but it was perfectly clear to me that it should have been there! I thought by 14 she had already forgotten it. And then when I came back to comment the next day I saw it actually was there.

    April 8, 2014 at 16:46
  • Dina van Wyk Reply

    You have clearly never heard the story from the Bible,where Jacob had a dream of a ladder reaching up to the heaven with angels on it.The man in her picture is very small,so not very significant and the angel is large.This could just as well have been that being a Christian,she did this picture according to this very well known story.That shoots down your whole theory.

    April 13, 2014 at 09:37
    • Stephen Reply

      Does it though Dina? Would the phallic/pistol like object that the man is holding, the look of shock on the girl-angel’s face (mouth with hands covered) and the perspective which seems to be from the girl-angel’s rather than the man’s not be a little difficult to incorporate into an image that was meant only as a representation of the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder?

      another two points also challenge your reading:

      1) June, Reeva’s mom, who presumably was around at the time the images were drawn makes no mention of their being of the biblical story. Now whilst she may not have known, it does seem probable that she was quite familiar with the images at the time they were drawn.
      2) Even if we allow that it was influenced at least in part by the story of Jacob’s ladder (and that I agree does seem reasonable, after all it clearly is a ladder to heaven), the very significance of a ladder to heaven in the image is what leads to the interpretation of its being an intimation of the journey she herself would make. a preparation perhaps for her soul that would make that journey sooner than most.

      In conclusion then I agree with reading of the image of the ladder as being the same archetypal image as Jacobs Ladder, however not that is only or strictly an representation of that story. It is rather, I suggest, and adaptation of biblical imagery into her own personal myth – a myth that we all well know now.

      April 13, 2014 at 11:29
  • Dina van Wyk Reply

    Why then is this figure with whatever is in his hands,(apparently one cannot say for sure what it is)drawn so insignificantly small?The trees have minute details,the sky,the colours make it look like a happy place.As for the angel’s facial expression,only the person who drew the picture would know what she was thinking.
    People’s heads are full of stories and especially children can represent that in drawings,without anything being sinister or predictory about it.Images are planted in our brains since we are small and has nothing to do with myths or some strange path that is laid out for us.If she was a KoiSan she would probably have drawn a praying mantis on a rockledge.If she was an arheist,she wouldn’t know about angels and the ladder to heaven.Thus we all interpret things according to suggestions in our surroundings that was planted in our brains since the day we were born.Absolutely nothing mythical about it.

    April 13, 2014 at 14:22
  • Alicia Summers Reply

    I find this a very interesting blog post and thread.

    I just have one question for Dina van Wyk, for as OP would say; “sorry Milady, I do not understand”.

    If the painting done by Reeva is not “mythological” in nature, please explain to me why not, and what you consider it to be.

    Thank you.

    Regards,

    AS

    April 13, 2014 at 21:59
  • Dina Reply

    Alicia,in reply to your question…
    This is exactly what she depicted,a myth from a Biblical story.A myth is just what it says,a story told through the ages,without any real evidence of truth.
    What I have been pointing out is that there is no such thing as a person’s own mythical path and how it can be in your subconscious and be brought forward in some picture.I say it again,we all have stories in our heads,put their by suggestions from whatever background we were born into.
    Whatever anyone on this forum believes,I don’t want to be disrespectful,but being in this modern world with knowledge available all around,I cannot see that mystical,unseeable,mythical things are still acceptable.

    April 14, 2014 at 18:14
  • Simone Reply

    Interesting read, Stephen! I wonder what the significance is of the drawing/painting been done on two separate, different sized canvases?

    April 17, 2014 at 01:31
    • Stephen Reply

      Simone agreed, I have been wondering about that myself. It really is quite unusual that they should have been done like that. Short of speaking to June though it is difficult to imagine how one could pursue that enquiry…the pictures are quite clearly a set, but yes why on two canvases, good question.

      April 17, 2014 at 10:40
      • Simone Reply

        It’s interesting that the man and the young girl are not on the same canvas.

        April 17, 2014 at 11:07
  • Ella Jakobson Reply

    A good friend of mine was visiting her fiance’s family in South Africa. She and her fiance returned from a party, it was around 11am at night. At opening the front door to her future inlaws’ house, she came face to face with a shotgun, pointed at her by her future father in law. Charming, and I get the feeling this is a very typical example of SA’s culture. Stay away!

    October 25, 2014 at 20:52

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